Fall in Southwest Virginia: 12 Hours in Wise County

Fall is here, and you’ve got one day to see it. OK, you probably don’t have just one day, but let’s pretend you do: where do you go, and what do you see? Southwest Virginia is one of the best places on Earth to see fall foliage, but knowing where to look is half the battle. That’s why we’ll be publishing a series of posts over the next few weeks detailing a one-day roadtrip throughout various SWVA counties that are guaranteed to maximize your fall goodness. Today we feature the high elevations and river bottoms of Wise County.

Even if you don’t live in southwest Virginia, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Wise County before. Maybe it was in an article about coal country. If not, what about a feature on Appalachian music? While it’s true that Wise County is located at the heart of Virginia’s coalfields and has a rich cultural heritage, that’s not all the county has to offer. The hills and hollows of Wise County are also some of the most scenic and varied terrain in the region. While it’s impossible to cover all of the county’s treasures in a single day, this roadtrip planner will help you make the most of it in a long daytrip.

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Fall colors above the City of Norton, Virginia (a stop on this route).

1.) Wise, Virginia: It’s hard to pick a single locality as a base of operations for fall color trips into Wise County. That’s because the county has multiple towns and Virginia’s smallest independent city located within its borders, making tourism options endless. We’ve chosen the Town of Wise as the starting point for this trip, though, thanks to its central location within the county and its proximity to nearby amenities. While you’re in town, check out the Inn at Wise (a renovated, historic hotel) for lodging, food, and drinks, or go take a walk around the scenic University of Virginia’s College at Wise campus, located just outside town.

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Forest above Roaring Branch, accessible via trail between Appalachia and Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

2.) Big Stone Gap: Start your trip by heading out of Wise on four-lane US Highway 23, taking Exit 2A for downtown Norton. Virginia’s smallest independent city, Norton is nestled at the base of High Knob and provides scenic views of the surrounding hillsides. Pass through Norton here (you’ll have a chance to look around later on this trip), and head down US-23 Business, through the town of Appalachia, to the town of Big Stone Gap. Along the way, you follow the rugged Powell River through a passageway in Stone Mountain (the town’s namesake), providing views of fall foliage above the riverside. The 14-mile Stone Mountain Trail starts off of this route and provides a steep but scenic hike alongside Roaring Branch, a Powell River tributary. Spend some time in the town of Big Stone Gap – the filming location for a recent movie by the same name – for more views and a sampling of small-town Appalachian life at its best.

3.) High Knob: After checking out Big Stone Gap, head out of town and follow backroads through the heart of Powell Valley – one of the Appalachians’ most scenic landscapes. Powell Valley is beautiful in any season, but it’s particularly stunning in fall. The cliff-lined walls of the valley – actually the eroded heart of an ancient, domed ridge called an anticline – form steep slopes that hem in the valley and mimic glacially-carved valleys found elsewhere in the country. A quick side-trip at the top of the climb out of the valley provides one of the East’s iconic vistas at the Powell Valley Overlook.

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Jaw-dropping views await at the Powell Valley Overlook off of US-23.

After topping out above Powell Valley, follow US-23 a short distance to the signed one-lane road up to High Knob. This route takes you some four scenic miles up to the 4,200-foot summit of High Knob, located within the Jefferson National Forest. The mountain doubles as the highest point of the Cumberland Mountains, and it shows: you’ll be able to see five states on a clear day, including the high elevations of the Smokies and Roan Mountain in North Carolina and Tennessee. Fall colors from the summit’s observation tower are spectacular. Use this interactive guide to learn more about what you’re seeing from the tower when you visit.

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Views into Tennessee from the High Knob summit.

4.) Flag Rock Recreation Area and the City of Norton: Not ready to stop seeing scenic vistas after you visit High Knob? You’re in luck. Head a couple of miles down the mountain to the City of Norton’s Flag Rock Recreation Area, where an open rock ledge provides a 180-degree vista across Wise County all the way to the Kentucky line. The park also has two high-elevation reservoirs for paddling, as well as an outstanding trail system for mountain biking and hiking. Get a quick spin in on the trails, and don’t forget to check out the mythical Woodbooger statue near the overlook. Once you’re done, head into downtown Norton at the base of the mountain for food and shopping options (info here).

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Looking down on the City of Norton from Flag Rock Recreation Area.

5.) Guest River Gorge and Town of Coeburn: After visiting Norton, head east on US-58 Alternate to the Guest River Gorge, a 5.5-mile multiuse trail in the Jefferson National Forest. As the name suggests, the trail follows the Guest River on its journey off of the Appalachian Plateau through a sandstone gorge that contains cliffs towering some 300 feet above the riverbed. Rapids are numerous on the river, and waterfalls cascade beside the trail at numerous points from side streams spilling over the gorge wall. As you can probably imagine, fall colors abound within the gorge. Spend a few minutes walking through a 1920s-era railroad tunnel to a scenic vista from a former trestle on the trail’s upper end, or bring a mountain bike and ride the whole out-and-back route. When you’re done, the Town of Coeburn is located just up the road.

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Rapids and streams on the latter half of this trip provide a great contrast to the sweeping vistas found early on along the route.

6.) St. Paul and the Clinch River: The last stop on this trip, the Town of St. Paul, is located just east of Coeburn on US-58 Alt, a route that plunges off the Appalachian Plateau for the Clinch River Valley. St. Paul is located directly on the banks of the Clinch and is an outdoor lover’s paradise. An river outfitter operates out of downtown (but may be closed during low water levels in fall), while the Sugar Hill and Bluebell Island Trail Systems provide opportunities to see color along and above the Clinch, including at a 1700s-era French settlement. ATV enthusiasts will also find a chance to hit the trail on the Spearhead Trail System outside town. Being some 3,000 vertical feet below High Knob, you’ll be able to see fall colors at a different stage entirely along the Clinch. When you’re done, hit up Sugar Hill Brewing Company for local beer and outstanding food. You can then either stay in St. Paul or head back up the mountain to Wise to complete the loop.

Other Considerations: While not mapped on the Google Maps embed above, it is possible to take dirt-gravel USDA Forest Service roads, virtually all passable by 2WD vehicles, from High Knob to near Coeburn and the Guest River Gorge. The colors along this route are spectacular and feature an extended drive across the high country through a diverse hardwood forest. These types of roads are narrow, isolated, and aren’t for everyone, though, so we’ve opted for the more well-traveled US Highway 58-Alt for this guide. If you’re interested, check out a detailed road map (a gazetteer has most roads labeled) and modify the route as you wish.

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